Last Man: Vol 1 (The Stranger)
Created by: Balak, Michaël Sanlaville, Bastien Vivès
Published by: First Second
ISBN: 1626720460 (Amazon)
Man, I want massive thick eyebrows to come back into style so bad.
In early 2007, entirely at a loss as to why, I discovered myself to be transfixed by the fighting tournament that had been unfolding across the pages of Negima! Magister Magi Negi. As the series (to my gratefulness) began to evolve away from its rather ecchi beginnings, it settled into a good fistful of volumes focused on the drama and ingenuity of the Mahora Martial Arts Tournament, a magic-infused kind of Bloodsport. To rights, I should have abandoned the series at this point—as it moved from one thing I disliked and onto another.
My interest in personal combat was (and still is) small enough to be unmeasurable. My interest in athletic competition stories was (and is) similarly stunted. I’m not even particularly interested in violence for the sake of the excitement of violence (idealistically, I’m a bit of a pacifist, even if not entirely in practice). That I should be on seat’s edge waiting for the next volume of what amounted to over-powered magic fighters fighting against magically over-powered fighters was baffling. The narrative tricks were obvious and I rather find the concept of combat for entertainment repulsive. Still, and strangely enough, I was all in.
*sigh* Magic users, it’s like they’re legitimizing cheating.
I picked up volume 1 of Last Man on the strength of Vivès’ name. I’ve already reviewed Taste of Chlorine and Polina and if you’re at all familiar, it’s clear that I’m in love with Vivès as an illustrator. I didn’t even know what the book was. It had a Vivès credit on the cover—I was invested. Then, maybe a week before I sat down to read Last Man, I was glancing through Zainab Akhtar’s 20 most anticipated comics for 2015 and saw an entry describing it as an homage to shounen manga. The back of the book mentions prominently a gladiatorial competition. The two combined and I thought: Oh no.
Fortunately, my next thought was: But, c’mon. Bastien Vivès. So obviously, I dove right in.
Adrian, you’re to young to understand, but I want to make your mom a mom.
If you get my meaning. Nudge nudge wink wink?
This first volume of Last Man (“The Stranger”) captures everything I loved about the fantasy combat tournament of Negima while excising all the excesses that kept me wondering what I was doing wasting my time on the series in 2007. The team of Balak, Sanlaville, and Vivès craft a fantastic homage to the Japanese subgenre—one that fires on all cylinders and is reverential to the genre it cribs from while establishing itself as something unique on the playing field. It’s a thrilling introduction to what looks to be one of the best series currently being published. With only a single volume it’s obviously still a bit early, but the confidence, talent, and storytelling on display are somewhat awestriking. I am, flatly, in love with what’s going on here.
Adrian is so freakin’ guileless in that top row. I want to hug him.
The book’s illustrations (forged in a mysterious concert between the three creators, with I believe Balak mainly responsible for storyboards and Sanlaville and Vivès combining somehow for the final illustrations) are consistent with Vivès’ usual penchant for fluidity, which is fantastic for a fight comic. But even better than that—and if you can imagine for a minute the essentiality of fluid combat choreography for this kind of story and then consider that this is better than that—the illustrators hold utter mastery of the characters’ expressions. Their faces are simple but convey a wealth of intents and meanings. Child protagonist Adrian shifts from guileless to guarded to curious to excited to determined to overjoyed, and the purpose behind his countenance is never in doubt. Richard Aldana also modulates between a host of feelings and moods and interests. There is, at all times, the overt story being told through dialogue and action, but simultaneously there is another story told across the faces of this book’s participants, a narrative born in looks and in eyes and in mouths and in shoulders and in the space of physical proximity, one character from another. This is a rich tapestry and this trio of creators demonstrates mastery of all the elements of their stage.
Honey badgers, right?
The best part of the fights in Negima was that they were informed and given context and import because of the relationships between and amongst the combatants and spectators. The same holds true here, only many of these relationships are created in the quiet spaces that linger between dialogue balloons. When Elorna (one of Adrian’s fellow students at his fighting school) does well in one of her matches, we sense the value of the win through Aldana’s observation of her during the fight, from Adrian’s reaction from the stands, and later by her partner Gregorio’s response to her performance. Much of the book is a beautiful collection of subtleties that twine together to weave a narrative with more clarity than the most exposition-laden books that glut the market every week.
This is the face of frustration.
One of the odd charms of Last Man is that the rules for judging fights are never actually explained and so the reader is left with the same hazy sense of things as foreign fighter Aldana. We don’t yet understand what is foul and what is fair. It’s a mysterious world and its authors are not in any hurry yet to remove either its lures or its veils.
I don’t understand either, Richard. Let’s just punch some people.
Last Man is a series that I can’t imagine anyone actively not liking (kind of like Cross Game). It’s filled with charm and romance and mystery. I don’t know where it’s going to evolve over its twelve projected volumes, but this first volume at least is themed and grounded on the problem of Hope. It’s filled with characters whose dilemmas and desires are on the cusp of fulfillment. Nothing comes of those dreams by volume’s end, but why would we expect them to? Instead we get complications and hints of complications. It’s a vibrant beginning to what I hope will continue to be a vibrant series.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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